At 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, the Granada Hills shopping center that is home to Family Fun Arcade was so full that guys in neon raincoats were directing traffic. But the crowd wasn't here for gaming action — they were ready to attend church services. The arcade itself was closed, despite the fact that the Arcade Relief Stream-A-Thon, a video game marathon intended to raise money for FFA owner Ralph Sehnert's medical bills, was set to go on for another hour. Posted on the locked door were the arcade's regular hours and a recent L.A. Weekly article about the FFA's impending closure.
Two hours later, I returned, this time with an old friend. We were set on making one final, small offering of quarters to the arcade gods at the video game haven of our youth. Still, the venue was closed. A couple people were waiting outside as well. One guy tells us that the Stream-A-Thon was shut down sometime in the middle of the night. He was there, he said, and it was crowded.
That moment when the Stream-A-Thon ended lives on Level|Up's Twitch.tv channel (see video above), captured in the midst of the gamer site's live stream of what was intended to be 24 hours of tournaments. You can see the crowd hovering over competitive gamers and the faces fall when the crowd is told they have to disperse. Sehnert raises his voice to be heard without a microphone. “We have way too many people in the building,” he said. “I appreciate that everybody came out like they did. But the cops came and said that they will send the fire department here. They will cite me. I will go to court. All the money we raised tonight will go to pay the fine.”
And so the Stream-A-Thon followed in the grand tradition of amazing L.A. parties. It ended too soon, because of powers beyond their control.
I was at FFA earlier in the weekend, on Saturday afternoon, shortly after the Stream-A-Thon began. Even in the event's earliest hours, the decades-old arcade was crammed with people, mostly male, a few as young as elementary school, others heading into their 40s. Some were signing up for tournaments, some were simply content to slap buttons on their own. Others were just there to watch. Former employees and FFA regulars stopped by to give their well-wishes to Sehnert. This place will be missed.
Up next: The history of FFA
Sehnert has seen the arcade trends of the late 20th century come and go. He started at FFA in the early 1970s as an employee. Back then, L.A. had just lifted its ban on pinball machines. Pong and Air Hockey were new. He quickly became a partner and, eventually, bought out his partners.
“We struggled for years. There were times when I thought surely we were going to close,” said Sehnert. “For some reason or other, we got a second wind.”
FFA will close, but it's not necessarily doomsday for the arcade world. On Saturday, Sehnert mentioned that Japan Arcade, his Little Tokyo spot with a focus on rhythm and music games, will stay open “for the foreseeable future.” Michael Watson, who launched the Arcade Relief campaign, is buying Super Arcade, not far from Cal Poly Pomona, from Sehnert. “People need to get out and support that,” Sehnert said regarding Super Arcade.
I look around FFA on Saturday afternoon and it seems as though little has changed since the 1990s, when fighting games were taking over arcades. There are still the guys in the hoodies, baseball caps and jackets covered with punk rock patches. Crews still pile into cars. They stumble out onto the parking lot with cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
“Back then, there was no Internet, so when you came across a good player, it was kind of a show,” said Watson, who started driving out to FFA from the San Gabriel Valley in the early 1990s. “You didn't know the player. You would see a lot of new techniques, a lot of new styles that you wouldn't normally see. It was an eye opening experience. With every tournament, there was something new, something fresh.”
I can't help but flash back to 1994. That's when I came here the most, after school in the months following the Northridge earthquake. My friends were all about Street Fighter II. I sucked at fighting games, but liked people watching, and FFA was always good for that. I liked the noisiness of the arcade, the way you could hear people pound the buttons with varying degrees of intensity, the sighs of defeat and screams of victory you could hear across the room. We were living in a disaster area, literally, but inside FFA, our end of the Valley felt normal. It was one of relatively few high school haunts that survived the earthquake — Senhert recalled that they were only closed for ten days and suffered no major damages, despite the fact that surrounding buildings had fallen — and one of few places that helped us keep the misery at bay.
FFA cultivated a scene that, for outsiders like myself, could be fairly intimidating. The players here were good. Really good. “It was known for having good players, so that attracts even better players over,” said Watson. “The entire Southern California fighting game community probably showed up here every three or four weeks to compete in the tournaments.”
Senhert described the FFA fighting game players as akin to “chess masters.”
“They know every single nuance of the game and every strategy it takes to win and they finesse it beyond belief,” he said. And Senhert catered to the needs of this community. At one point, he had 13 Street Fighter III: Third Strike games and 18 Street Fighter II games. They made head-to-head cabinets, so that people could compete without seeing their opponents. “You'll hear the golf clap from the other side when the other guy hands you your ass,” he said with a chuckle.
And, for a few hours in the waning weeks of the arcade, those days returned. The games, like Tekken Tag Tournament 2, were different from the ones I remember from high school, but the energy inside this place, the liveliness of it was still the same. This was a special moment, as well as a fleeting one.
On Saturday, I mentioned to Senhert that it's weird to see everything you remember from the real world fade into a virtual one. On Sunday afternoon, when FFA finally opened again, those sentiments grew stronger. There was only a small handful of people inside the arcade, my friend and I were amongst them. We played a few rounds of Street Fighter II Turbo. He offered me a handful of tips so that I might suck a little less. I asked him how he remembered those moves. He said he wasn't sure, it just “came back” to him. Nostalgia is like that. We were playing in a fog of '90s memories, in an arcade that's about to close, surrounded by remnants of other businesses that used to exist at the intersection of Balboa and Devonshire. I felt like a relic of some almost-forgotten time when people actually met up to play games in a public place, when you could actually get tips from the pal standing next to you.
But maybe it doesn't have to be like that. FFA has reached the end of the line, but maybe Japan Arcade and Super Arcade will catch another one of those seconds winds that Senhert mentioned. It will just take a lot of people ready to leave behind the home gaming systems for a few hours to venture back into the arcade.